Shadowbane (2003)

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Developers: Stray Bullet Games and Wolfpack Studios
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PC

© Copyright Ubisoft

© Copyright Ubisoft

Shadowbane is not a game I played much. I got it because my friends were convinced it was going to be great. Some people get peer pressured into smoking. I end up buying video games. I’m not sure which is worse for your health. At the time, my computer couldn’t even run the game. I had to go to my friend’s house, with its awesome LAN setup, and play there. After using up our free month that comes with every MMO, we decided the game had run its course and quickly cancelled our subscriptions.

Shadowbane’s got your typical fantasy setting: medieval weaponry, magic, mythical monsters, etc. What sets it apart from other games of the time is its exclusive focus on player versus player (PvP). The whole point of the game is to engage in combat with other players. There is no player versus environment (PvE) endgame: no dungeons, no boss creatures, no epic adventures. Once you reach max level, the only thing left to do is beat up other people. To make things more engaging, players can join guilds and build their own cities, which then leads to siege warfare, as they can destroy other cities or defend their own from likeminded invaders.

Levelling up in Shadowbane is odd. In a typical MMO, group members share the experience points for every kill, and a small percentage is added to reward their teamwork. For example, each member of a two-person group might collect 55% of a mob’s offerings. Shadowbane would go further, allocating 110% of the mob’s experience points to each member. The bigger the group, the bigger the bonus. Add the fact that you can kill mobs faster in a group, and reaching max level can suddenly be done in an evening.

This was probably done so players could reach max level as fast as possible and avoid being ganked by veterans of the game. However, the device had an adverse effect: people could build up dozens of characters without playing any of them. My friends would log on in the morning, find someone with whom to group, leave for school, and then come back in the evening with our characters ready. Levelling up adds length to a game. When you can reach max level and get the best gear without any work, it is surprising how fast you get bored.

There was one reason we played for more than a week: Ebonlore. On our server, Fear, one guild fully embraced the PvP aspect of the game. They settled on the biggest island available and worked on controlling it completely, destroying all other cities established there. After reaching total domination, they went on a rampage and attacked the biggest cities on other islands. They were the bad guys, the group we had to stop. We learnt after the fact that they were also hackers and cheaters, but whatever. A coalition eventually brought them down. Sensing the end, the guild leader sold all of Ebonlore’s possessions on eBay and left for another game. With the main baddies gone, everybody became very protective of their cities, and nothing much happened anymore.

© Copyright Ubisoft

© Copyright Ubisoft

I think the problem with Shadowbane lies in its reliance on PvP. In my experience, many who claim to like PvP actually like bullying. They will not engage in PvP unless they know they have the clear advantage, unless they know they will win. Ebonlore was a huge guild. Safety in numbers is key in PvP, and that is what allowed them to go on such rampages. With them gone, everyone was on an equal footing, so everyone was too timid to engage in battle.

Shadowbane also suffers from something I have not seen in other games. The content got stale very fast. How often can you kill the same people before it becomes a chore? To be fair, all MMOs face repetition, but usually expansions and patches are created to bring new content, new dungeons to explore, new creatures to kill. In Shadowbane, new patches bring new classes, so you get to kill the same people over and over again, but, instead of using ability X from an old class, you’re now using ability Y from the new class.

Shadowbane eventually became free, owing to low subscriptions. To pay for this, Ubisoft showed commercials whenever you logged in or out of the game and when you died, making it the worst penalty of any MMORPG! The servers were shut down in July 2009, although projects to emulate the game (create free servers on which to play) are ongoing.

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Category: Game Reviews, Verdict: 2.0 | Tags: ,

Video Game Correspondent: Nicolas or, as his friends like to call him, Dr Nick has a PhD in physics as well as an unhealthy obsession with video games. He won the 2006 Nininger Award for his work in astrophysics and hates vegetarians as a general rule.